Notes from “The Guns of August”

Cover for Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August

Here’s my first book for this year’s Read Harder Challenge!

I first started reading The Guns of August two years ago. “Started,” because work quickly caught up with me, leading to a slow abandonment of the book around the halfway point.

That was a shame, since this is–despite the heft and subject matter–an eminently readable book. Barbara Tuchman retells the ominous mix of personalities, beliefs, and events that led to World War I with clear and graceful prose. Really, it feels like getting a bedtime story from your grandmother with the twinkle in her eye.

I’ve been reading slowly to digest all the brewing chaos properly, so I’ve just passed the third chapter. Still, there have already been some lines that bear saving. Here are a couple that I feel should be read together, considering events in many parts of the world right now.

On Clausewitz’s third object of war, the winning of popular support through crushing victory:

He knew how material success could gain public opinion; he forgot how moral failure could lose it, which too can be a hazard of war.

As much preference as many electorates last year showed for quick, concrete “wins” and supposedly quantifiable results at the expense of many vulnerable sectors of society, I’d like to think that the public won’t permit the total erosion of moral and ethical principles.

Although Tuchman also has this to say:

One constant among the elements of 1914–of any era–was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.

Does this “constant” persist more than 102 years later, and all over the world at that? Stay tuned.